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Cancel Culture: Vigilante Justice or Mob Rule?

11 min read

“Cancel culture” was begun as part of the #MeToo and other social justice movements, as a method of dealing with situations in which social media platforms, corporations, or authorities seemed unwilling or unable to act. For those unfamiliar with the idea, it means boycotting a particular personality, and encouraging others to do the same. In many cases it has made a difference in bringing justice when no other justice was forthcoming. It has resulted in big entities who otherwise might be inclined to ignore public opinion to take the steps of “cancelling” problematic people themselves.

I think we’ve reached a point, however, at which it’s time to consider restraint. Cancel culture can be brilliant when used wisely. But it can also be unnecessarily destructive. It can lead to condemning people who may not deserve condemnation on the flimsiest of evidence, denying a person who is otherwise decent the chance to grow and learn, “purity policing” in a way that divides people who might otherwise be allies on other issues, and throwing out what is good and useful along with what is problematic. In some cases, I genuinely believe it has even been weaponized by bad actors to divide and conquer among the people on the opposite side of an ideological divide.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The Satanic Panic

I am old enough to remember the Satanic Panic in the 80s and 90s. For those who are not, this was a moral panic, started by a book called Michelle Remembers, in which Michelle Smith recalled a terrible past of buried memories involving horrific abuse at the hands of her parents, purportedly members of a Satanic cult, who routinely tortured and murdered and sexually abused children. All of a sudden, numerous copycat claims began to emerge.

It became common knowledge that there was a secret Satanic cult operating at all levels of society. Evangelical Christians went on a warpath, seeking the members of this cult. They became convinced that rock music, video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and a whole host of other perfectly innocent activities were ways of recruiting people into the cult. A movement began to censor all of these things, leading right to investigations by the American government, in which such notables as Ozzy Osbourne and Dee Snider (of the hard rock band Twisted Sister) testified before a special commission before US Congress.

During this time, I happened to be (as I still am) a member of a religious minority: a Neo-Pagan. Pagans quickly were assumed to all be members of this secret Satanic cult.

Painted by the Same Brush

During this time, I was harassed by the Ministry of Children and Families, as were most of my friends, some of whom had their children removed for no good reason. Three of those children were adopted out without parental consent, because their parents were judged to be too dangerous to raise children by virtue of their religion.

People were fired from their jobs; people I know. Public halls refused to rent to me for the public practice of my faith. One man was even convicted of murder because the investigating police didn’t like him and his “Satanic religion” (he was a Wiccan.)

Aside from the obvious injustice of associating perfectly innocent pastimes, and perfectly innocent people of a religious minority, with such a crazy, terrible thing, it all turned out to be for naught. Michelle Remembers was disproven, and the therapy method which unleashed all these accusations was discredited.

This All Looks Familiar

I can’t help but see the quick desire to rage and condemn against a target as more of the same. Just as it was during the Satanic Panic, the targeted person is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Often, the mere accusation, even by one person, is enough for a massive campaign to cancel and condemn, including the shaming and “cancellation” of anyone who continues to support that person.

I’m all for not allowing problematic people a platform to continue to spread their evil. Nazis need to be deplatformed. Racists and homophobes need to be deplatformed. Certainly rapists need to be deplatformed. But I think it would be a good idea to use a lot more rigour before we condemn someone on mere suspicion, association, or even one person’s say-so.

The Possibility of Growth & Forgiveness

Sometimes — often — a person does say or do something that is problematic. ContraPoints, a trans philosopher and a voice for social justice who is converting thousands of people with her funny and intelligent YouTube channel, has said things on Twitter that have made enby people feel invalidated, for example. But the community didn’t give her a chance to learn and apologize; they immediately launched a campaign to cancel ContraPoints. Eventually it drove her right off Twitter — though thankfully, not off YouTube.

When the issues were pointed out to her, she spent some time considering her response. Then she not only apologized, she made a video that examined the most stereotypically “wacky” enby character she could create; and ultimately concluded that their identity was perfectly valid, and saying otherwise was just bigotry.

I can’t think of a better apology. But it wasn’t enough, because by then, the “Cancel ContraPoints” movement was in full swing. And truthfully, every time something comes up that can be interpreted in any kind of negative way, the campaign begins anew. These days, there are many people in the trans and enby community who hate ContraPoints, and they don’t even know why. It’s something they heard from someone else about how she hates enby people, backed up by a few potentially problematic tweets taken out of context.

Now, you can argue about my interpretation of the ContraPoints situation if you want to, but regardless, don’t you think it would be a good idea to give people an opportunity to learn from their errors before we decide to cancel them?

Purity Policing

On top of that, with the way cancel culture currently works, there is no benefit in admitting wrongdoing and apologizing. When someone has a change of heart, we continue to harass them for the mistakes they made in the past. You see this frequently with public figures. Often, something they wrote 20 years ago suddenly comes to light, because the internet is forever, and we tear them apart. Never mind that they’ve spent the past 20 years doing exactly the opposite of whatever it was they said or did, proving through their actions and their activism that they’ve had a change of heart and learned to do better.

Not to mention that many of these demands for “perfection” involve continually moving an imaginary goalpost, and then decrying people for falling short of these made-up and unrealistic standards. I can think of several current examples, from climate denialists claiming that people who want to fight climate change are forcing everyone to go back to the horse and buggy, to capitalists whimpering that socialists should give away all their money, to mainstream news media outlets saying that a certain Presidential candidate’s supporters are both “too white” and “too urban” at the same time.

I think you’ll have to search far and wide to find someone who has always been perfect, and who has never made a mistake. And if you’re going to tear other people apart for not being perfect at every point in their life, you are helping to create a culture in which it will be perfectly fine to tear you apart when your mistakes come to light. If you are at all public, even if it’s in a small community, it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens to you, because nobody is at their best all the time. It’s happened to me, and it will happen again, because I’m not willing to sit down and shut up.

Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

Sometimes, there is no doubt that something that a public figure has said or done is problematic, and either they refuse to acknowledge the issue, acknowledge it but refuse to apologize, or they have been dead for some time and can no longer respond to argue or apologize, one way or another.

But — BUT! — the work they have given us is still valuable and important in some other significant way. Should we then disregard everything they ever did, in the belief that garbage people can only produce garbage, no matter what it meant to us at the time?

Hugo Gernsback & John W. Campbell

Science fiction and fantasy are full of this, and it becomes very challenging to get a broad range of what has influenced the genre if you’re going to immediately exclude anything by someone who was problematic. The whole field was poisoned from the moment it became popular, thanks to Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugos were named, and John W. Campbell. These were some of the most important magazine editors in the field, and they were notorious sexists and racists, to the point that it was difficult for decades for women, LGBTQIA+ folks, and People of Colour to get their work published. Most of the people they published, including the triumvirate of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, were also problematic.

Does that mean that we should throw out the whole field? I don’t think so, obviously, since I’m writing with a focus in it. I think it’s important to be aware of those forces, and to try to balance the systemic biases that are now built in whenever possible, but I’m not going to disregard the genre altogether. Nor am I going to disregard the works of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, who had some amazing ideas and made some important contributions.

Orson Scott Card

There are more recent, and less nebulous examples that are perhaps even more confronting. For instance, Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, is a confirmed homophobe. As a queer person, this affects me personally, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to spit on the man if he were on fire. Yet, Ender’s Game is a powerful book about child soldiers, trauma, and PTSD that I think everyone really ought to read. You don’t see any of his homophobia in the book — certainly no more than was typical of the time in which it was written, anyway (lots of binary gender ideas that I dismiss) — and its message, I think, is so important that in this one case of his work, I am willing to make an exception to my decision to boycott.

Marion Zimmer Bradley

Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover novels, was, according to multiple reports, a child abuser. Her own daughter accused her of sexual abuse after her death, and while many criticized the daughter at the time, these reports now seem extremely credible. So should we disregard her work, boycotting it forevermore?

I would say no. First, she’s dead, so doing that doesn’t hurt her in the least. Instead, it hurts her daughter, who no doubt has inherited her intellectual property rights and continues to make money on her mother’s writing. And it hurts Diana L. Paxson, co-writer of many of the Avalon books, who according to all reports, even that of Bradley’s daughter, knew nothing about what her co-writer was doing and would have been horrified had she known.

Second, that book, although now a little dated, changed many women’s perspectives of themselves and their place in myth, and touched off the modern trend of revising such well-known popular stories. Wicked and Maleficient and even Frozen are written in this tradition, and none of it would have happened without the breakaway success of The Mists of Avalon.

J.K. Rowling

More recently, J.K. Rowling has said things on Twitter that indicate that she holds some transphobic views. This is after a long line of statements and actions that have been broadly criticized and are certainly problematic in and of themselves. Should we immediately go and toss our Harry Potter books into the recycling bin?

I would say no. Despite the fact that Rowling is by no means perfect, her books invited a generation of children to rediscover reading at a time when most people believed reading was going the way of the dodo. They taught a generation how to recognize fascism when they saw it, and are almost certainly contributing directly to the popularity of the resistance movement. And they taught the world that despite the fact that almost all literature prior to their publication suggested this, women do not immediately flock to the side of the hero when he pushes all the right buttons as his entitled reward; but rather, are thinking beings, heroes in their own right perhaps, who have their own feelings and motivations and do what they believe is right for them, for their own reasons. Whether that was the message she intended to send or not, I’ll have some patience with her just for that.

Death of the Author

Now, of course I adjudicate this on a case-by-case basis. Some works have their issues built in, and those should almost certainly be avoided. Some things just aren’t worth it (I don’t think any of Orson Scott Card’s other books are worth the time of day, for example.) But I’m a believer in Death of the Author as a literary theory. What I write, and what I intended, is less important than a reader’s relationship with it, and what it meant to them. If that makes me a garbage person, so be it.

Weaponization

Finally, there’s one more point I’d like you to consider. Has it occurred to anyone else that a system in which the mere accusation of wrongdoing leads to a massive feeding frenzy on a person’s public reputation, that this could be, and probably often is, weaponized?

J.K. Rowling, ContraPoints, and many others who have been “cancelled” are voices whose small measure of power have been extremely inconvenient to those who support oppression. While I agree that their statements have been questionable and problematic, and certainly worthy of criticism, it would be rather beneficial to the Neo-Nazi crowd, and those who benefit from them, if they were driven from the public square entirely, wouldn’t it? Shutting them up would be an amazing stroke of luck for these guys, and how much better if those of us who support social justice did it for them?

Not to mention that there are a couple of recent political scandals that I can think of that had verrrrry convenient timing when they were dropped, and the accusations were exactly the kinds of things that lead to cancelling.

Conclusion

A lot of recent events inspired me to write this article. Ultimately, you have to make up your own mind, just as anyone should do with any moral or ethical decision. But I hope you’ll consider some of what I have to say. And for the counterpoint, I invite you to read Sarah Buhrman’s excellent article, which appeared a few days ago on this site. Thanks for reading.

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